Fork in the Road: Syria’s Return to the Arab League

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  • The Arab League’s controversial May 19 welcoming back of Syria marks a turning point for the region, but next steps are murky.
  • Clearly the Al-Assad regime has scored a diplomatic coup, but Damascus’ regional rehabilitation is not a foregone conclusion and US sanctions even look set to tighten.
  • Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League was midwifed by a shift in Saudi policy, as Riyadh pivots toward regional de-escalation.

The Issue

The Arab League meeting in Jeddah has divided regional opinion: One man’s realpolitik is another’s capitulation to despotism. Supporters of the move argue that old policies failed emphatically, and that the region urgently needs a radical reset. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s metamorphosis from pariah to prospective partner marks the end of the post-Arab Spring era. A new regional order, driven by Riyadh’s need to prioritize economic development over its debilitating conflict with Tehran, is emerging. Ostensibly, the trajectory is toward de-escalation. But a lot could go wrong, and already the US is challenging the reconciliation’s legitimacy.

The ‘Peace’ Dividend

The case for normalization with Syria is that the status quo was untenable. Prior to Jeddah, al-Assad had simply no incentive to cooperate — over refugee return, terrorism, or to curb the trade in drugs, notably captagon, the highly addictive amphetamine that has flooded the region. And for some time, actual regime change has looked the unlikeliest of prospects.

From a Saudi perspective, Syria’s sanctions-driven total dependency on Tehran was turning it into an “actual sort of province of Iran” and in Riyadh’s view something needed to be done to stop this becoming “irreversible,” says David Butter of UK think tank Chatham House.

The normalization move follows Riyadh’s recent rapprochement with Iran as the kingdom pivots to promote the right investment conditions to enable its ambitious economic diversification drive. While the deal has taken much of the heat out of Saudi-Iranian tensions, the region is not necessarily a safer place.

Cooler Gulf-West ties have gone hand in hand with greater Chinese engagement in the region, as seen by its brokering of the recent Saudi-Iran deal. The US position on Syrian normalization is likely to be shaped by its ongoing confrontation with both Moscow and Beijing. A rash of tanker seizures by Iran in the wake of the Riyadh-Tehran deal, apparently in retaliation for similar US actions to enforce sanctions, would point to Washington being prepared to roil the region.

Critics of the deal argue Damascus has no intention of honoring commitments over captagon, refugees and humanitarian access. But the rapprochement’s architects have the option to slow normalization and pause any financial support. For Riyadh, rather than a new era of pan-Arab friendship, Jeddah represents an effort by the Saudis to “claw things back a little bit and sort of reposition themselves," but in a careful way, says Butter.

Sanctions Create Delivery Problems

The problem for the Saudis is that US sanctions make it very difficult to provide any sort of financial support, let alone on the scale needed to rebuild Syria. In the days leading up to the Arab League meeting, high-level US officials made clear their opposition to normalization. On May 17, a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee passed the bipartisan Assad Anti-Normalization Act. This aims to expand the already-draconian Caesar Act sanctions by targeting Syrian lawmakers and their families. It would also review humanitarian assistance programs and some charities.

To some extent the White House, by its public opposition to normalization, has painted itself into a corner. Even projects like the United Arab Emirates' plan to install 300 megawatts of solar capacity near Damascus could trigger calls for action by Congress. “In theory [the solar plant] is a win-win-win for everybody,” says Syria expert Joshua Landis. “But let's see you trying to build that plant. Congress is going to jump up and make a big stink,” he says, warning continued sanctions mean no economic recovery and no solution to the refugee crisis. “What Syrian is ever going to go home if there are no jobs and there is no money? They can't,” Landis explains. “It is clear that this [policy] is going to lead to a major kerfuffle with their only friend in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia,” he says.

Normalization is also critical for Syria’s neighbors, Jordan and Lebanon, both of whom suffer from captagon crises and a heavy refugee burden. But perhaps the greatest impact will be on Damascus’ relationship with the breakaway Kurdish northeast. The Joe Biden administration has pledged to maintain the US special forces mission that underpins Kurdish autonomy there. But Washington is not backing independence, and Iran, Turkey and Iraq — not to mention the Gulf — are all in favor of minimizing Kurdish authority. Sooner or later, Rojava will likely be absorbed by the regime, although some limited Kurdish autonomy could be retained. As minorities, the Kurds and the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus need each other.

Gulf-US Culture Clash

The new Saudi policy comes amid a sea-change in Gulf attitudes toward their traditional Western allies. Ties remain deep-seated and structural, but something has broken in the relationship amid the US push to distance itself from the region. The failure of the US security guarantee during the 2019 Abqaiq attacks, reinforced by criticism over human rights, Yemen, and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, have all contributed to the chill.

Energy is perhaps an underappreciated driver of the rift. Repeated US oil market interventions over the past year have been viewed by some in Riyadh as actively sabotaging its oil market management. Gulf frustration is also mounting over OECD energy transition policy, which is seen as hypocritical (calling for fossil fuel phaseouts while increasing coal use), contradictory (demanding supply increases while calling for no new investment in oil and gas), and self-serving (demanding low LNG prices while being unwilling to commit to long-term contracts).

Increasingly, the EU’s distaste for carbon capture, nature-based offsets and blue hydrogen — along with the high carbon bar it sets for green hydrogen, which could penalize some Gulf projects — is seen as actively anti-Gulf. This view will only be reinforced by EU and US lawmakers’ recent call for the UAE’s Sultan al-Jaber to step down as president of COP28.

Military Conflict, Sanctions, Opec/Opec-Plus
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